Brad's Books and Organizations

Books

Books

Organizations

Organizations

Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

« swipe left for tags/categories

swipe right to go back »

The Future of Transportation

Comments (65)
William Hertling is one of my favorite science fiction writers. If you are in the tech industry and haven’t read his books Avogadro CorpA.I. Apocalypse, and The Last Firewall, I encourage you to go get them now on your Kindle and get after it. You’ll thank me later. In the mean time, following are William’s thoughts on the future of transportation for you to chew on this Sunday morning.

There’s always been a sweet spot in my heart for flying cars. I’m a child of the 1970s, who was routinely promised flying cars in the future, and wrote school essays about what life would be like in the year 2000. Flying cars are a trope of science fiction, always promised, but never delivered in real life. In fact, at first glance, they seem no closer to reality now than they did back then.

But maybe they’re not so far away. Let’s look at some trends in transportation.

Electric Cars

Hybrids vehicles, with their combination of both gas and battery power, represent 3% of the cars on the road today, up from zero just ten years ago. Fully electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla are mere curiosities, representing only 0.1% of all cars purchased in the U.S.

It might seem like a slow start, but electric cars will soon form the majority of all vehicles. Here’s why:

Except for early adopters of technology and diehard environmental customers, most people aren’t buying a fuel type, they’re buying transportation. They may want speed or economical transportation or family-friendly minivans, but how the vehicle is powered isn’t their main concern.

Examples like the Tesla have shown that electric vehicles perform on par with gas-powered cars. What limits their adoption then? Two factors: cost and range (and charging infrastructure, to a lesser extent, but that will be remedied when there is more demand).

The Nissan Leaf battery pack alone costs about $18,000 (though government incentives bring down the overall vehicle cost to the customer). When comparable gas-powered cars are about $20,000, the high cost of the battery pack alone is a huge barrier to widespread adoption, whether the cost passed on to the customer or the government, or hidden by the manufacturer.

Ramez Naam, author of The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, recently explained that lithium-ion batteries have a fifteen year history of exponential price reduction. Between 1991 and 2005, the capacity that could be bought with $100 went up by a factor of 11. The trend continues through to the present day.

This exponential reduction in battery cost and improvement in battery technology, more than anything else, will affect both the cost and range of electric cars. By 2025, that Nissan Leaf battery pack will cost less than $1,800, making the cost of the electric motor plus battery pack less than the price of a comparable gasoline motor. Assuming even modest increases in storage capacity, the electric vehicle will rank better on initial cost, range, performance, and ongoing maintenance and fuel costs.

With both lower cost and better performance, electric vehicles will likely overtake gasoline-powered ones by about 2025.

Autonomous Cars

Even ten years ago, most of us couldn’t imagine a self-driving car. When the first DARPA Grand Challenge, a competition to build an autonomous car to complete a 150-mile route, was held in 2004, the concept seemed audacious and it was. Of the fifteen competitors, not a single one could complete the course. The farthest distance traveled was 7.3 miles.

The following year, twenty-two of twenty-three entrants in the 2005 Challenge surpassed the 7.3 mile record of the previous year, and five vehicles completed the entire course. Sebastian Thrun, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, led the Stanford University team to win the competition.

Sebastian Thrun went on to head Google’s autonomous car project, which first received press coverage in 2010 and continues to captivate our imagination. Yet despite Google’s technology proof point, and the development work now being done by many vehicle manufacturers, most people still imagine self-driving vehicles to be a long way off.

But Google has essentially shown that self-driving cars are already here: their vehicles have been accident-free for half a million miles whereas human drivers would have had an average of two accidents in the same miles driven.

The real barrier to adoption is cost. In 2010, the cost of Google’s self-driving technology was $150,000, of which $70,000 was just the lidar (a highly accurate laser-based radar). German supplier Ibeo, which manufactures vehicular lidar systems, claims it could mass-produce them as soon as next year for about $250 per vehicle. Computational processing is likely another large component of the overall price, and it has a long history of exponential cost reduction.

If costs come down, are there other barriers?

Some concerns in the media include:

  • Legislation. Will self driving cars be legal? Nevada, Florida, and California have already legalized them, suggesting this may be less of an issue than anticipated.
  • Litigation. Who will take the risks and pay up if and when there is an autonomous vehicle fatality?
  • Fear & Control. Some humans will fear self-driving cars while others will insist on their own manual control of their vehicle.

However, these oppositions aren’t unbreakable laws of physics. They are resistance to change, and they are subject to the forces advocating for autonomous vehicles, such as:

  • Fewer accidents reduce overall risk and liability, which will cause insurance companies to favor self-driving cars.
  • A reduction in the number of people killed in motor vehicle accidents (currently 3,200 people are killed every single day) makes a compelling social benefit.
  • Greater convenience and the recapture of drive time will lead to strong consumer demand.
  • As a feature differentiator, manufacturers will be eager to sell a profitable new option.
  • Reduction in drunk driving and increased alcohol consumption will make alcohol companies and restaurants strong supporters.
  • More efficient use of roads will save governments money in reduced infrastructure costs.

Simply put, the money is with the forces for autonomous vehicles. Insurance companies, liquor companies, vehicle manufacturers, customers, and governments will all want the benefits of self-driving cars.

There’s been talk about halfway solutions: semi-autonomous vehicles that are hands off but require an attentive driver, or need a human to handle certain situations. It’s both cheaper and easier to build an assistive solution than to have full autonomy, which is why we’re starting to see them show up in luxury cars like the Mercedes S-class, which has a driver assistance package (just $7,300 over the starting $92,900 price!) that can help maintain your lane position, distance from drivers ahead of you, and avoid blind-spot accidents.

But the driver is still in control and responsible.

In some ways, this semi-autonomy may be the worst of all worlds. It could encourage drivers to pay less attention to the road even though the vehicle isn’t really up to the task of taking control. As it stands, drivers don’t get much practice with emergency situations. So when emergencies do occur, our reflexes are slow or wrong. How much worse would the average emergency response handling be if drivers got even less practice, and were only called into action when they were either not ready or in a situation so bad that the AI couldn’t handle it? Under these circumstances, it’s unlikely that a human driver would respond in a correct, timely manner. If even airlines pilots fall asleep when the autopilot is on, how likely is it that regular drivers will be attentive?

So when will it happen?

One rule of thumb I learned upon entering the technology industry was that it takes seven years, on average, for new technology to go from laboratory proofs to sellable product. I’m not sure where that rule comes from, but by that measure, we should see the first self driving cars on sale in 2017.

From a cost perspective, we’ve already seen that lidar is likely to drop from $70,000 to $250. We don’t know the breakdown of Google’s other costs, but it could decrease by a factor of ten in ten years (pure computing technology falls faster – about 50x in ten years, more mechanical things slower). That would drop the total price under $10,000 by 2020, a reasonable luxury car option.

By 2030, another ten years out, the price will fall under $1,000, at which point the autonomous option will cost probably less than the annual savings in insurance.

In sum, we already see some limited assistive capabilities now, and should see partial self-driving capabilities around 2017, available as expensive options, with full autonomous capability around 2020, still at a significant cost. By 2030 or slightly earlier, all vehicles should be fully autonomous.

Dude, Where’s my Flying Car?

Now we get to the long-promised but not-yet-realized flying car.

The barrier to flying cars is not in the design or building of a viable airframe. We’ve built small flying vehicles for a while now. A quick Google search shows their amusing variety. We have manned quadcoptershover bikes, and lots of flying car-like things.

No, the real problem is that piloting is hard. Less than one third of one percent of Americans are pilots. A pilot’s license costs $5,000 to $10,000 and requires months or years of time and study. (Even if a pilot could fly a car in an urban environment, it’s not likely to be an enjoyable experience: think about the difference between a drive on a two-lane country road versus commuting in an urban grid. One is pleasure and the other utility.)

So it’s really the piloting barrier we need to overcome to see flying cars.

That will happen when autopilots, not humans, have achieved the necessary level of sophistication. Companies like Chris Anderson’s 3D Robotics have built, along with the open source community, the ArduPilot, a sub-$500 autopilot for unmanned drones. The ready availability of these consumer-grade autopilots suggests that navigation in open air by software is no more challenging (and may be less so) than navigating ground-level streets.

There will be substantial legislative barriers and not as many forces pushing for flying cars, but we should see at least see concept vehicles, prototypes, and recreational models (possibly outside the U.S.) in the late 2020s, just following the mass-market production of fully autonomous cars.

What about cost? An entry-level plane like the Cessna Skycatcher is a mere $149,000, a price point that’s lower than that of forty currently available automobile models. While entry-level helicopters are twice as expensive as comparable fixed-wing aircraft, quadcopters significantly simplify the design and add fault tolerance at a lower cost than single-rotor copters.

If the legislative barriers can be overcome, flying cars might not be as common a sight as a Ford or Toyota, but they could be more common than a Lamborghini or Aston Martin.

Trains & Hyperloops

I love the train ride between Portland and Seattle, and I’ve taken it dozens of times, including just riding up and back in a single day. Trains are relaxing and roomy, and their inherent energy efficiency appeals to my inner environmentalist.

On the other hand, they also have shortcomings. They’re locked into a track that is sometimes blocked by other trains, leading to unpredictable arrival times, and they go according to timetables that aren’t always convenient.

Elon Musk’s hyperloop may reduce new infrastructure cost, boost speeds, and reduce the timetable problem while maintaining energy efficiency, but I think the hyperloop is a stop-gap measure. That’s because we’ll soon reach an era of cheap electricity.

Photovoltaic cost per watt continues to drop (from $12 per watt in 1998 to $5 per watt in 2013, 14% annually over the long term) at the same time that we’re seeing new innovations in grid-scale energy storage. Ray Kurzweil and others predict that we’ll meet 100% of electrical needs with solar power by 2028. So while efficiency of passenger miles traveled is a key element to sustainable transportation right now, it may be less important in the future, when we have abundant and inexpensive green power.

Green power reduces the energy efficiency advantage of trains and the hyperloop. Of course, the other major benefit of mass transit is freeing the passenger from the tedium of driving, but self-driving vehicles accomplish that just as well.

Transportation Singularity: 2030

In sum, we have several key trends converging on the late 2020s: fully electric fleets, cheap electricity, autonomous vehicles, and flying cars.

Transportation will look very different by 2030. We’re likely to have many autonomous, personal-use vehicles. Since car sharing services are even more useful when the cars drive themselves to you, we may have much less personal ownership of the vehicles. Airline travel is likely to change as well, as self-piloting fast personal vehicles will compete for shorter trips, while the reduction in fuel costs may change the value structure for airlines.

And yes, we’ll finally have our flying cars.

About the Author

William Hertling is the author of Avogadro CorpA.I. Apocalypse, and The Last Firewall, science fiction novels exploring the role of artificial intelligence and social networks in the near future. Follow him on twitter at @hertling, or visit his blog at www.williamhertling.com to learn more about his writing.

  • philwheat

    Actually, probably the biggest barrier to flying cars is the energy problem. It takes a lot more energy to fly than to drive. Now what will be interesting is looking at the tradeoff with low traffic routes – I can see situations where it makes more sense to spend the resources on the flying car than building/maintaining roads. I’d love to see someone look at where that breakeven point might end up though – I expect there would be lots of factors to consider, such as soil shifting, local power generation types and the like.

    Also, autonomous cars are an interesting environmental item in the novel “Rainbows End” – I highly recommend it for all kinds of idea bombs.

    • StevenHB

      Interesting point about low-traffic routes. Much like the adoption of cell phone technology over landlines in areas without previously-existing infrastructure.

    • Duncan Cairncross

      You got it
      It’s the power requirements – something like the Martin Jetpack has a 150Kw engine and it will be running full snot all the time

      • dorkyman

        Exactly right–the fact that something CAN be done does not mean that it makes sense economically.

        I came to this article with an open mind, but then found myself disagreeing with the author about every 4th sentence. But I think he would make a fine science-fiction writer.

    • Andyg

      Apparently the following is being claimed with regards Stefan Klein’s ‘Aeromobil’ ,.. “Once airborne, it can reach a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour and travel as far as 700 km, consuming 15 litres of petrol per hour.”,..
      If this is true, then is seems fuel economy for flying cars is possible,.. although this particular flying car doesn’t fulfill a number of other criteria, most importantly the fact that it doesn’t have VTOL capability.

      • philwheat

        That’s somewhere around the fuel consumption of a Piper Cub J3 – they’re quoting basically 4x the energy cost to fly at altitude than to drive, which is not bad. But that ignores the runway need and the climb to altitude fuel cost, plus the higher weather vulnerability that a small aircraft has to deal with.

        • Andyg

          Having had a look at pictures I seriously doubt this is the be all and end all of flying cars.
          I always envisioned something more aerodynamic akin to a rubbery manta ray which would have VTOL ability and take on a wing shape appropriate to it’s speed

          People always put too much emphasis on the CAR part when they think of flying cars,,. I don’t think they’ll look anything alike.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    It’s ironic (and even vexing) that many of the car innovations seem to be coming from newcomers, Tesla, Google, etc… The traditional car manufacturers are absent (so far), and notably Detroit. If they realize they don’t have to re-invent everything, and rather partner with/source what’s already been invented and adapt it, then maybe we can see some innovations come together.

    • philwheat

      William – the traditional car companies are doing a lot, they just are very careful how they position it (remember they have a lot more to lose if they misstep.) I can personally point to two projects I’ve worked on that are very focused on transitioning their market today into what they see coming. http://www.wired.com/autopia/2010/05/ford-american-journey/ and more recently http://carnewscafe.com/2013/11/toyota_darv_microsoft_kinect/

      • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

        Thanks.
        Curious why is the Ford screen protruding and not integrated- was it a prototype?

        • philwheat

          Yeah, this was the start of the current Ford push to allow their vehicles to be app platforms. If you note – the project was in 2010, so things have moved pretty far since then. I found a picture of the back of one of the cars, you can see how development it was at the time. http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=430465181353

    • RestfullBull

      William , nissan sold half the electric cars sold in 2013. And the japanese manufacturers are showing serious advances in hydrogen cars, which could be a serious competitor to electrics.

      • Andyg

        Hydrogen is a terrible fuel, .. it needs to be kept under very high pressure,. has a very slow energy density and it is very hard to prevent constant leakage.
        If one has the means to produce cheap hydrogen then it’s better to take it one step further and react it with CO2 to produce methanol which is a much more practical fuel, and with a much higher volumetric energy density than hydrogen.

        • RestfullBull

          Maybe you’re right but the fact that the japanese companies have invested billions and over a decade in hydrogen cars and talking about releasing such cars in 2014/2015 speaks for itself.

          • Andyg

            Well, history is full of such dead end projects, so I wouldn’t count on it.
            The fact is with only a little energy loss hydrogen can be converted into methanol by reacting it with CO2.
            With straightforward conversion a lot of TODAY’s gasoline could be made flex fuel and thus able to burn any combination of gasoline and methanol.
            This is attractive, as it means drivers can fill up at the numerous regular gas stations that haven’t yet installed methanol pumps.
            This would eventually result in the increased availability of methanol, paving the way for the next generation of cars using methanol fuel cells.

          • Andyg

            Ps I meant to say “A lot of today’s gasoline CARS could be made flex fuel”

    • Andyg

      It’s obviously got to do with oil interests having a stake in automobile companies.
      It would have been a technical no-brainer to make all gasoline cars flex fueled decades ago so they could burn any combination of gasoline and methanol.
      Methanol(more easily than Ethanol) can be made from any carbonaceous feed stock, such as plentiful coal or natural gas,.. and eventually using nuclear energy from water and atmospheric CO2.

      Focusing on Tesla’s newfangled roadster merely distracts from the obvious solutions.

  • bmchenry

    Zzzzzz.

  • ObjectMethodology.com

    “Dude, Where’s my Flying Car?”
    .
    I was just emailing someone about the fact that wanting to start the first company to offer people transport via pilot-less drone-like vehicles is keeping me up at night recently.

  • http://www.marcusuav.com/ Marcus UAV

    Small UAV designs are just a stepping stone to small uav’s that carry human payloads at our organization…

  • Duncan Cairncross

    Hi
    Just a comment about the Leaf battery pack – NO WAY does it cost $18,000
    The batteries for my DIY electric car cost me $400/Kwhr, Back in December 2011
    At that price the Leaf pack would be $9,600

    And there is no way that Nissan is not getting a better deal buying thousands of packs than I was buying one pack

    My estimate would be that the Leaf pack is costing less than $4,000

    • evworldeditor

      Duncan… I completely concur. $18,000 would be $750/kWh and that number is five years or more out of date. I am guessing it’s closer to $200/kWh and I seem to recall a report out of the UK confirming that. That would put the pack costs at $4,800.

  • Duncan Cairncross

    Photovoltaic costs
    Here in NZ (not quite a major hub – bet you can get it cheaper in the USA)
    Solar system costs – for a 4Kw system
    Panels – $4,000
    Inverter – $4,000
    Labour/frames/bits – $4,000

    Overall $3/watt

    So your $5/watt is history

    • williamhertling

      Wonderful!

  • Thomas Cocirta

    Brad, thanks for this post . One of the best analysis I read lately. I would add that, in opposition with conventional cars, electric cars are, by design, “Moore’s Law” products. We need more of such smart analysis because I think that the biggest obstacle for electric cars is cultural.

    Another big problem is that developments in the automotive field are incremental and legacy protecting. But this field will be disrupted, as we shift to a completely new era.

    We already have today all the technologies we need to build smart and clean mobility solutions and I have a start-up who tries to prove this. We started to design an electric trike and we will have a prototype before the end of the year. But we completely embraced the new paradigm:
    · Development mode: open hardware.
    · Usage mode: p2p rental.

  • Adam Trabold

    Think of how awesome it will be to look back on this article in 30 years if none of this comes to fruition. Its like one of those Popular Mechanics articles from the 50s…only this time I think its much more accurate and plausible. Thanks for posting this!

  • http://www.tellagence.com/ Matt Hixson

    I always enjoy your thoughts William. And for those of you that have not read his books you are missing out. They are great.

  • Jay Mutzafi

    Another bullet point regarding self driving cars, beyond a certain level of adoption, traffic jams will nearly disappear.
    This is one of the strongest points in favor of it, but it might also delay the arrival of flying cars by a bit more, if traffic is no longer an issue (for a while).

    • Andyg

      Once flying cars become the main mode of personal transport, then you can start to seriously cut back on transport infrastructure. No need to build expensive new roads,.. or even maintain a lot of the existing ones.
      Over-dependence on grid infrastructure also prevents the development of a truly free libertarian anarchist society. Flying cars and more off-grid homes would help to limit the relevance of the government.

    • williamhertling

      This research found that just using autonomous adaptive driving could increase highway capacity nearly 3x: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?reload=true&arnumber=6093130

      I don’t know if those results apply to city streets, which is where I tend to see most congestion, but there’s got to be a substantial improvement.

  • http://www.processtriage.com/ Joe Rosenberger

    Thanks Brad for posting. I just triaged a state’s Department of Vehicles business process that handles adverse actions related to driver’s licenses — suspensions, restrictions, revocations, cancellations (for poor eyesight, for example). This office (process) receives 4K touches per day (half phone / half electronic) and, without getting into proprietary information, interacts with a surprising 15% of the states population annually, mostly for failure to show up at traffic-related courts and failure to have proofs of insurance. The costs of this social contract (legislated & enforced) are significant, especially in this state that has little public transportation infrastructure besides some urban busing.

    Yet, technology is constantly doing what we needed people to do — which are the very jobs that pay taxes that create the sustainable source of a stable currency to pay for the benevolence (social safety net programs) and investments (roads & infrastructure) we’ve set our hearts on. Presently, we’re funding too much of our cash flow from monetizing debt — which is obviously unsustainable. One scenario says we’ll collapse the value of our currency or trigger an equally horrendous deflation — both scenarios way above my expertise.

  • Steve Hayes

    but the hyperloop is FAST, LA to SF in 30mins. That sure beats 5 hours. It’s fast because it’s in near vacuum. No alternative I’ve heard of can do that without an unacceptable sonic boom.

    • williamhertling

      A plane can basically match that, but the reason the hyperloop is faster is primarily because of the overhead at each end associated with flight: security checklines, boarding and unboarding, parking and/or transportation to the airport.

      Anytime you have centralized infrastructure, there’s an access cost associated with using it. To a certain extent, you’d still have this problem with the hyperloop.

      • Steve Hayes

        If it really is 30minutes, then it’s an average speed of over 760mph (peak ~1000mph I suppose), ie supersonic, so there would be a sonic boom if a plane did it in open air, and that’s unacceptable. Any supersonic overland transport would have to be underground therefore, if you see what I mean (or in a tunnel anyway).
        I quite agree that you still have terminals etc. I don’t really understand why planes are so slow; maybe it’s all because the ultra narrow aisles slow everything down. But experience at eg Shanghai, Paddington-Heathrow, TGV in France Spain etc is yes that you arrive and 15minutes later or less you can be on your way. Given it’s town centre there isn’t so much parking need and associated rigmarole.

  • Andyg

    A seriously doubt battery cars will over take liquid fueled,..the most likely form of an electric will be a methanol-air fuel cell which drives an electric motor as you then have a lot of the advantages of using and electric motor, without the terrible storage density of regular batteries and a quick refueling time.
    The best way to ensure this however is to fist introduce a flex fuel bill which mandates any future gasoline cars be able to burn any combination of gasoline and methanol, this created market will ensure methanol pumps become viable for filling stations making methanol more readily available when methanol fuel cell cars become more widespread.
    Currently methanol could be primarily produced from natural gas and coal, however on the long run it would be manufactured from water and atmospheric CO2 using nuclear energy, preferably safe and clean Thorium(LFTR)

    • williamhertling

      I wonder about the rare elements some batteries need, and whether they will be enough of them available to meet demand.

      But there have been steady, long-term decreases in battery cost, and steady, long-term increases in battery capacity. Lithium-air batteries, although far from commercialization, show energy density similar to gasoline (11,140 Wh/kg vs. 13,000 Wh/kg): http://globenewswire.com/news-release/2013/10/10/579676/10052160/en/Lithium-Air-Batteries-Technology-Trends-and-Commercialization-Prospects.html

      The range of cars like the Tesla are sufficient for daily driving needs. I think fuel cells will be reserved for very long-range needs.

      • Andyg

        Point is something like a methanol fuel cell would render tesla’s roadster virtually obsolete.
        With the former you have way lower potential cost,.. longer range and much quicker refueling times.
        You can only assume battery energy storage density will increase so far,.. and right now it’s over an order of magnitude worse than liquid fuels.

  • Andyg

    Some important criteria for a flying car to become viable for the masses are as follows:

    1) Can run economically as a non-commercial personal aircraft
    2) Has VTOL capability but can still achieve significant speed
    3)Can passively glide, i.e. if there is a power outage the wings relax back into an optimum gliding position
    4)Has a price comparable to today’s average cars

    5) Can be handled easily enough by a less than average person, with sufficient training.
    6)Has inbuilt sensors to prevent crashes, as well as a fully night vision cockpit window as opposed to lights,..as having similar lighting to cars, but then not having this light shielded by hedgerows is going to cause tremendous light pollution,.. lights would be only used in emergencies,. or while close to or on the ground, mainly so others can see you.

    Also flying cars while likely not look like cars of today,.but more likely a rubbery flex-wing manta ray type shape.

    • Andyg

      7),.. they’ll have to be quiet too,.. a heck of a lot quieter than your average light aircraft especially if they are similar in number to today’s cars

    • williamhertling

      Also note that there’s a difference between a flying car for the masses and a flying car for the wealthy. I imagine the first flying cars will be $200,000+ plus exotic cars: suitable for a select few. If such a car can be built for less than half a million, there will be buyers.

      Passive glide is one form of addressing risk. Quadcopters take a different approach: independent rotors and motors enable a quadcopter to survive the loss of one motor and still have stable, controlled, flight. (Hexacopters can survive the loss of two motors.)

      • Andyg

        Quadcopters still don’t address the safety issues regarding loss of power,.. an inbuilt parachute,..maybe ,. but still only effective above a certain altitude.
        And the NOISE,,.. totally unvaible as a machien for the masses.
        I stick to my criteria.

        • williamhertling

          If you assume independent motor and power for each rotor, then yes…they do address loss of power. On the noise front… the military has done much to study noise reduction in helicopters (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helicopter_noise_reduction), but there hasn’t been much a call yet to do the same for hobbyist equipment. Shrouding, ducting, variable spaced blades, and the use of electric motors could all reduce noise.

          • Andyg

            You have to factor in fuel mileage too,..
            Assuming you can really make your quadcopter quiet enough,. then it might be worth while fixing it with some flex-wings in order to improve mileage.

            Copters address the need for VTOL, but you still need the wings for mileage efficiency.
            Personally I don’t think the flying car will look anything like the current concepts

          • williamhertling

            Lift bodies can provide lift without traditional wings, which may help with efficiency without traditional wings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lifting_body

          • Andyg

            Fair point!!,. Personally I envision some sort of rubbery flex-wing ray shape machine(I may be way off the mark) that takes shape appropriate to it’s speed but relaxes to optimum gliding configuration if the power accidentally out.

            The flexible nature could allow it to become more compact while parking.

          • Andyg

            If you can really make your quadcopter quiet enough, then you also have to address mileage efficiency,.. and that typically means wings.
            The quadcopter addresses the need for VTOL, but not mileage.
            If one can attach some flex-wings to it then fine.
            Even so I don’t believe the true flying car of the future masses will be anything like the current concepts.

  • Docthebiker

    I look forwards to increased battery efficiency, The extra mAh will give me longer flight times with my quads.
    However stretching airtime from a couple of minutes to 25 for a small model used by a minority group doesn’t place much of a strain on the National Grid.
    With power generation struggling to meet growing domestic and industry demands, while under added pressure to go green, I wonder where the power to run electric cars is to come from?
    I hear of Governments the world over striving to meet much needed in increases in generation capacity, but there is no mention made of the extra increases needed to meet the demands of electric vehicles.

    • Andyg

      The most viable solution with regards electric cars is with a methanol fuel cell which would use electric motors.
      On the long run rather than using a clean and abundant energy source to recharge batteries which are still an over an order of magnitude less energy dense than liquid fuels it could instead be used to synthesize methanol from water and atmospheric CO2 which would also make refueling quick.

      This approach is also far more practical, in that a flex fuel bill could mandate that all future gasoline cars be able to burn any combination of gasoline and alcohol(e,g, methanol) and this would eventually ensure the widespread availability of methanol which would then make the next step of introducing methanol fuel cell cars viable.
      Of course initially methanol would be mainly synthesized from gas and/or coal, but eventually from a more long term source such as nuclear perhaps.

    • williamhertling

      Ray Kurzweil, Ramez Naam and others have pointed to a far amount of evidence for exponential increases in capacity and exponential decreases in cost for photovoltiac power generation. By the late 2020s, solar should provide a very significant chunk of our electrical needs.

      Here’s a link to an article by Naam: http://rameznaam.com/2013/11/14/solar-power-is-dropping-faster-than-i-projected/.
      And coverage of a talk by Kurzweil: http://www.pv-tech.org/editors_blog/could_kurzweil_be_right_about_solar_the_google_of_energy

  • Maria_Octo

    I disagree on the flying cars. Sure, piloting is hard, but having been a pilot, it’s not that hard. No. There is a bigger problem with flying cars. LIFT.

    Consider how much energy a ground car must spend in order to keep itself from colliding with the ground. Virtually none. Consider how much energy a helicopter, hovercraft, or airplane must expend in order to keep itself off the ground. At roughly 30% or higher, that’s a lot of energy.

    Consider going on vacation. You can hop into the land car, fill the tank, and drive for a day. An aircraft with the same amount of fuel won’t go that far.. The energy demands of flight make the economics of flight too costly as a general consumer parctice. Not until we have a small, light-weight, energy storage system, and truly cheap power will we have flying cars. Will that one day happen? There are some promising technological developments that indicate it could.

    • Andyg

      If you consider that a fuel like methanol burned in internal combustion engines is still cheaper by energy content(per mile) than gasoline,.. then consider the fact that this cheaper methanol could potentially be used in a methanol-air fuel cell with up to 85% efficiency, and the prospects of an economically viable flying car are starting to look a lot better

      • Maria_Octo

        Volumetric energy density of Methonol = 15.912 MJ/L
        Volumetric energy density of Gasoline = 31.536 MJ/L
        Volumetric energy density of Diesel = 34.92 MJ/L

        I think you may have mixed up something somewhere. Gasoline has more miles per gallon than Methanol, and Diesel has more miles per gallon than gasoline, assuming the same efficiency of engine. Depending on the fuel cell, most fuel cells can handle multiple fuels, including methanol and diesel.

        But the issue isn’t the miles per gallon, it’s the pounds (or dollars or pesos or sheckels or euros) per gallon (or litre). The biggest obstacle to the flying car is not technology, nor training, but economics.

        • Andyg

          I am well aware of the volumetric energy densities of these fuels.
          I you read my post properly you’d have seen that I was pointing out Methanol is CHEAPER per mile(which also means cheaper by energy content),.. yes you need more of it, about twice as much, but it’s less than half the price of gasoline which already makes it competitive as a fuel for internal combustion engines.
          Now if you can run methanol through a fuel cell with up to 85% efficiency(way higher than an internal combustion engine), then methanol looks even more promising than previously.

          • Andyg

            If you can run diesel and gasoline through an efficient methanol fuel cell, then even better, though I still reckon methanol will be the primary fuel of the future as it’s cheaper per mile.
            Maybe flying car owners will choose a more expensive higher energy density fuel when going on much longer trips without the possibility of refueling regularly.

    • williamhertling

      Agree, if energy is still a constraint. If we enter an era of cheap electricity and high capacity electric storage, then perhaps we can afford to spend more energy on lift.

      Also, there are some high-end cars than get abysmal gas mileage. If a buyer is spending a few hundred thousand on a vehicle, is the fuel efficiency a major concern? Maybe not.

  • JB13

    Autonomous cars will be a reality, within the next two decades. Of that, I have no doubt, for all the many benefits already discussed. But flying cars? Just imagine what will happen the first time one of those things slams into an office building – or, worse yet, terrorists are able to use them as flying car bombs. How can you stop it? But we don’t even need to go that far. Imagine the headlines when a flying car loses power and crashes into a crowd of hundreds waiting to cross the street in Manhattan or another major city. What kind of redundancies and failsafes can be built into a vehicle to combat gravity when all power is lost? Even if a parachute is deployed, the thing is *still* coming down – and will it fly high enough for a parachute to even matter, given its weight and the speed at which it will likely be moving at the time power is lost? And, another point: How do you police where these things can go? Right now, we have tightly defined avenues for our vehicles, based on pavement, markings, etc. But how do you legitimately stop a flying car from flying over, say, a stadium, or parking outside someone’s 13th floor apartment? It’s one thing to have a few aircraft flying above city streets on a daily basis. It’s quite another to transfer the number of vehicles now on your typical city streets to the airspace above them. Perhaps we could allow automotive flight outside urban areas, while restricting it inside cities? But even that is fraught with difficulties. There are *so many* logistical questions that would need to be answered. The technology may arrive, but I just don’t think it’s feasible.

    • Icepilot

      So autonomous cars (in 2 dimensions) will be a reality but autonomous cars (in 3 dimensions) won’t work? And if 3 dimensional cars (with parachutes) will be such a danger, how are we to avoid those other, much larger, 3 dimensional vehicles ( called airplanes) that don’t have parachutes? Why would autonomous 3-D vehicles “slam” into buildings any more often that 2-D vehicles?

  • Gene_Frenkle

    Long haul trucking will be impacted greatly by both batteries and self-driving technology. Battery swapping solves the battery size problem and recharge time issue because self-driving trucks can pull over every two hours for a 5 minute swap–the interstate is ideal for a battery swap network. Also, self-driving RVs can use the same network as long haul trucks.

    One thing I wonder about is what will be the speed limit on the interstate with self-driving cars? If autos can travel 100 mph and avoid congestion then they can compete with many airline routes. Also, the CA HSR would be a waste of money if Megabus can offer LA to SF service for $15 and 3 hour travel times.

    • Andyg

      The best idea is to use an abundant source(e.g nuclear, ThoriumLFTR) of energy to synthesize a fuel like methanol, as opposed to recharging batteries with their terrible energy density

      While methanol isn’t as energy dense as say diesel, it is still an order of magnitude better than the best batteries, would result in a much cheaper vehicle, and entails the same short refueling time as any other regular liquid fuels vehicle.
      The diesel cycle can also be adapted to burn methanol.
      Even better might be the methanol fuel cell with it’s higher efficiency,. and used to drive superior electric motors.

      • Andyg

        … add to that, the fact that in the context of flying cars pure electrical(i.e batteries) becomes even less credible.

        • Gene_Frenkle

          Autonomous long haul trucks do not need to go 1000 miles without stopping, they will be much more flexible and time will not be an issue. Autonomous trucks and batteries that can go 200 miles will be more than adequate with quick battery swaps spaced every 50 miles. At the distribution center along the highway they can be recharged. Autonomous trucks will essentially just be a trailer, so they will be more efficient without the tractor. Also, the commercial trucking companies will pay cheap rates for electricity.

          • Andyg

            Well just like batteries a methanol fuel cell would be producing electricity rather than direct mechanical power, so they would also be suitable for autonomous vehicles with good control.
            Then again you may be right, who knows,,.. I guess even with far less energy dense batteries, the energy storage portion will still only represent a small fraction of the overall weight of a fully loaded truck.
            Though regarding the flying car section of the article,.. I still reckon that would require liquid fuels which are far more energy dense,.. unless someone actually develops(to an adequate standard) the as of yet theoretical lithium-air battery, or even say a beryllium-air battery

          • Gene_Frenkle

            How far would a person want to fly without access to a bathroom? An autonomous car could drive at over 100 mph on the interstate and pull over at rest areas or a small van with a toilet could be used for families. EVs are so cheap to operate that they will compete with flying if speed limits go up due to autonomous vehicles.

            I think the CA HSR is a waste of money, I think maglev would be worthwhile, but bus and car travel is about to get much better and cheaper so 200 mph trains that average a lot less are not that exciting outside the NEC. That said, a VTOL bus like battery powered vehicle that can travel 300 miles at up to 300 mph could compete with maglev. How does the bathroom issue work with flying cars, can they land on top of buildings in NYC? Autonomous small single person electric cars might work better for NYC than flying cars.

          • Andyg

            Provided energy costs(or energy carrier costs such as synthesized methanol) are low enough and a flying car design is efficient enough and fulfills all the safety and practical criteria, then yes there is a good reason to replace most of the ground based traffic with flying cars.
            As you may know, construction and maintenance of roads costs billions, something which is accepted currently as it’s really the only viable way of getting around at reasonable cost.
            Economically viable flying cars could minimize the ground based transport infrastructure thus saving money and not blighting the landscape so much

Build something great with me